Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cultural Evolution/Revolution: Calls Across the Pacific a novel by Zoe S. Roy

Calls Across the Pacific is the second novel by Zoe S. Roy that describes the lives of characters affected by China’s Maoist Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Her first very good novel, The Long March Home published in 2011, was the story of three generations of women, one immersed in the time of Maoist oppression, one who escaped it in part, and a third who was not directly involved but seeks to understand her family’s legacy of life in the vast, ever changing China. 

In her second novel, Ms. Roy develops the character, Nina Huang, who escapes from Number 5 Military Farm, a re-education location for individuals from families tainted by family histories of perceived anti-Maoist revolutionary activity. Nina and her boyfriend attempt to flee to Hong Kong seeking asylum from a democratic government. The two are separated in flight, and 20 year old Nina makes her way to the U. S. with the generous help of Chinese expatriates. Working hard at tedious menial jobs, Nina makes a life for herself with the idea of ultimately learning about the contrasts between her Eastern and Western cultures through formal education.

Nina earns opportunities for basic and advanced education in the U. S. and Canada and forms relationships in her new settings. But, she does not forget her roots in China that she perceives as positive but morally restrictive in the long run but oppressive and purgative in the revolutionary short term. Using her facility with languages, Nina develops her writing skills and sets out to record the history of her family and acquaintances as a journalist. Nina has a peaceful and fulfilling life in Canada but feels drawn back to China to record the stories of people who suffered greatly during the Maoist Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. A persistent theme in Nina’s story is her view of the evolution of Chinese culture. Is this process dependent on abrupt changes through violent revolution followed by a slow recovery of enduring values? Or is China sacrificing its cultural legacy by rapidly forcing changes in the peoples’ unifying philosophy and the country’s economic strategies?

Calls Across the Pacific is written in a simple and direct style that is appropriate for teenage, young adult, and older adult readers. The freelance articles Nina writes about the experiences of a variety of people in China broadens readers’ understanding of its evolutionary/revolutionary history in the 20th Century.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hungry Ghost: Ballad of a Small Player a novel by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player (2014) is a novel of contemporary western China, in Macau’s gilded gambling casinos. “Lord” Doyle is an expatriate barrister from London. Doyle thinks of himself as a long term loser personality and an obsessive gambler against luck. The ironic title of Lord has been given to Doyle by the Chinese hotel and casinos staff because of his good suits, yellow gambling gloves, and “quai lo” (Caucasian) airs of royalty he maintains while losing more money than he wins. Wealth that Doyle embezzled and absconded with from London gives him immunity from overt scorn by the Chinese gamblers and staff. Doyle’s self-hatred is mitigated by his identification with Taoists’ concept of “preta” described in English as “Hungry Ghosts.” These poor souls are awaiting reincarnation to a better life existing indefinitely in the equivalent of Christian hell. The hungry ghosts are burdened by a tremendous appetite for food, drink, and other sensory pleasures that cannot be satisfied except during the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Doyle sees himself as a denizen of the casinos in his seventh month.

The novel is an interesting character study and maintains a consistently gloomy mood against a background of huge glitzy rooms. The depressive views of Doyle are symptomatic of what we call gambling “addiction” in the West. In the East, however, the Chinese call the predictable addictive behavior “luck,” that Doyle associates with the I Ching. Caught between two cultural views, Doyle plays a type of Baccarat that involves no player skill, only a turning of the cards and counting numbers. He casts his fate to the wind every night expecting to lose with no basis for his anticipation. Seeing himself as a loser, Doyle claims that once a loser always one. As an addict, Doyle is a hungry ghost who has selected specific self-destructive behaviors because of his immutable loser personality. Instead of the Western explanation that an addiction overcomes one, the Eastern description is that all past and present living factors (including guilt) have influenced one to pick his individual unreachable “pleasure.”

This is the second good novel of the Orient by Lawrence Osborne I have read. Hunters in the Dark will be published in January 2016.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Momentary Behaviors/Intentions: Hunters in the Dark a novel by Lawrence Osborne

A heart of darkness beats in all of us, from the social isolate to the psychopath. Most of the time, people play by the rules and mores of their societies, because it is convenient and easy to meet their desires. Their Karmas, momentary behaviors and intentions that make their futures predictable, are in line with the expectations and freedoms of others. When a cultural revolution is engineered by a dominant personality or cult, behavior becomes modified, more focused. Even when that revolution has evolved into a stable government, all the players become in the words of Lawrence Osborne, Hunters in the Dark.

Thirty year old British teacher on summer leave, Robert Grieve, visits Southeast Asia on a cheap holiday and crosses over the border of Thailand into Cambodia, a land with a legacy of a genocidal cultural revolution. Loosely attached to his British lifestyle, naive Robert “goes native” in the land of sweltering heat, daily rain, and citizens who seem dismissive their own free will. Their Karma is fatalistic, fearful, and impulsive as if their span of consciousness has been shortened and there may be no tomorrow.

An American expatriate living in Cambodia causes Robert to make what seem to be reasonable choices that lead him to cut many of his ties with his British heritage. Forced by circumstances to survive in the moment, Robert meets native Cambodians from upper and lower strata of the tropical country. Robert’s experience teaching in Great Britain benefits him to some extent, but his ignorance of Asian life makes him vulnerable to people whose Karma is affected by a legacy of Cambodian “killing fields.”

The fast-paced story is a complex study of contemporary West/East cultural interaction that is reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Robert is an Englishman, however, who does not have the benefit of a Raj and must learn to find new ways to adapt to the ways of an alien society. This is a very good novel by the author of two previous novels, The Forgiven and The Ballad of a Small Player.